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Michelle Obama Wants $400 Million for Non-Existent ‘Food Deserts’

October 28, 2010

Is First Lady Michelle Obama’s proposed $400 million/year “food desert” initiative a good use of taxpayer dollars ? It doesn’t look that way, according to CNSNews’ Terence Jeffrey.

Mrs. Obama’s multi-million dollar anti-obesity initiative seeks to eradicate so-called food deserts. “Right now, 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million kids, live in what we call ‘food deserts’—these are areas without a supermarket,” Obama explained in May. “And as a result these families wind up buying their groceries at the local gas station or convenience store, places that offer few, if any, healthy options.” According to Obama, these “food deserts” lead to increased levels of obesity.


“We’re creating a Healthy Food Financing Initiative that’s going to invest $400 million a year—and leverage hundreds of millions more from the private sector—to bring grocery stores to under-served areas and help places like convenience stores carry healthier options,” she announced.

But Jeffrey wonders if the situation is as dire as Mrs. Obama describes it and whether this new financing initiative is warranted. Pointing to a 2008 government study of “food deserts,” Jeffrey concludes the First Lady’s characterization of American “food deserts” is “fatuous at best.”  (emphases mine)

Lower-income Americans live closer to supermarkets than higher-income Americans.

“Overall, median distance to the nearest supermarket is 0.85 miles,” said the Agriculture Department report. “Median distance for low-income individuals is about 0.1 of a mile less than for those with higher income, and a greater share of low-income individuals (61.8 percent) have high or medium access to supermarkets than those with higher income (56.1 percent).”

There are 23.5 million people who live in “low income” areas that are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. But more than half of these people are not low-income, and almost everyone in these areas–93.3 percent—drive their cars to the supermarket. On average, they spend 4.5 minutes more than the typical American traveling to the supermarket.

“Area-based measures of access show that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas (areas where more than 40 percent of the population has income at or below 200 percent of federal poverty thresholds) that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” said the report. “However, not all of these 23.5 million people have low income.

“If estimates are restricted to consider only low-income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” it says. “Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes).

“However,” says the report, “93 percent of those who live in low-income areas with limited access traveled to the grocery store in a vehicle they or another household member drove.”

Only 0.1 percent—one-tenth of one percent—of Americans living in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket took public transit to the store, the report said.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’m happy to point out that I am one of the Americans who uses public transit to get to the nearest grocery store–which happens to be in the middle of a low-income neighborhood.)

It’s for this “one-tenth of one percent” of American living in low-income areas that First Lady Michelle Obama says U.S. taxpayers need to invest $400 million every year.  Is it worth it?  You be the judge.

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